Vegetables, chicks, zoos all products of St. Dominic STEM lab

By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent

ANIMAL KINGDOM • Seventh-grader Claire Cooke works on the safari zoo design. Courtesy photos

With STEM curriculum at the forefront of Catholic education in the Diocese of Trenton, the days of only reading, writing and “rithmatic” are long gone.

In St. Dominic School, Brick, the classes include aspects of agriculture that use to belong just to the farm and the wild: hydroponic gardening, hatching chicks and designing animal-friendly zoos.

In a partnership with Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, St. Dominic’s STEM lab teacher Joanne Arnold was able to have her seventh-graders learn the basics of gardening without soil, through the free program offered by the college. Tamara Pelien, Rutgers’ cooperative extension agent and educator outreach representative, assisted with the experiment

“Rutgers advertised about this program, and I reached out to them,” Arnold explained. “It’s free – they bring all the equipment, including the seeds. We just apply water and electricity.”

“I would grow a hydroponic garden at home, because it’s easy and fun,” said seventh-grader Sarah Davis. “The plants grow in different time periods than in soil. In hydroponic gardening you follow a different process, and it takes less time for the plants to grow.”

That process, Davis explained, involved using a five-gallon water tank with a special filter and rockwool in place of soil. Students were responsible for testing the water for levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, as well as pH levels. The water was recycled and filtered for two weeks before being completely replaced.

“We grew baby lettuce, spinach and parsley. After they sprout, they get transplanted to pots,” she continued. “I was surprised at how quickly they grew and how well they sprouted.”

Seventh-grader Nicolo Secul brought in fertilized chicken eggs both from his personal chicken project for Ocean County 4H, and from his 4H leader.

“I’ve been raising chickens for about eight years now,” Secul said. “You have to keep them at 99.5 degrees with humidity of 40 to 50 percent, and they incubate for about 21 days.”

The incubator was set up in the STEM lab for third-, fifth- and seventh- grade students to observe the five different breeds of eggs. At 18 days, Secul explained, the eggs must be removed from the incubator and placed in a special basket to hatch on their own over the next few days. The hatched chicks then go back to a heated box, or “birder.”

“This year we kept them for two weeks, then I took them home,” he said. “Most went back to my 4H leader. The rest are going to the Ocean County 4H Fair in July in my display.”

Arnold is also a 4H leader and was able to reach out to Secul’s leader to help provide the eggs.

“All the breeds had different characteristics and personalities. We wanted the students to do the agricultural side of life science in biology, especially when it comes to food,” she said, adding that students need to learn that everything doesn’t come from a grocery store.

In keeping with the theme of plants and animals, students collaborated in designing and building zoos that each had a specific theme.

“Our zoo was based on an open concept safari zoo,” said seventh-grader Claire Cooke. “We used mathematic skills to measure acreage of different habitats, and the size of the trees and bushes. The watering hole also had to be accessible to all the animals, so we had to measure for that.”

Cooke’s team had to create an original sketch of their zoo design according to scale. She compared the open concept to that of the San Diego Zoo, Calif.

“I learned many species in the savannah are willing to share their habitat with other animals,” she said. “I also learned that animals will get their nutrients from resources around them. I would love to help design a real zoo someday – especially an accessible zoo [that accommodates] kids with special needs.”

As chair of the diocesan science program for Catholic schools, Arnold is working with Dr. Margaret Boland, diocesan associate superintendent of schools, to develop STEM curriculum in accord with the Next Generation Science Standard – and that includes incorporating STEM across multiple subjects.

“It makes it a lively class – I am just the facilitator,” Arnold said. “The students have to collaborate and brainstorm as a group, design and build a prototype.”

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